Chapter 16 of the Book of Judges relates how the mighty Samson took hold of the gates of Gaza, including the posts, and lifted them on his shoulders and carried them all the way to the top of the hill across from Hebron – about 60km!
The Philistines of biblical days who inhabited Gaza are very different from the modern Palestinians, just as modern Jews are not ancient Judaeans. But ancient memories still govern their modern relationship.
The person who captured this most clearly was Moshe Dayan, the famous one-eyed Israeli warlord. In his eulogy for a young person murdered in the fields of his kibbutz in 1956, Dayan said: “What can we say against their terrible hatred of us? For years now, they have sat in the refugee camps of Gaza, having watched how, before their very eyes, we have turned their land and villages, where they and their forefathers previously dwelled, into our home.
“It is not among the Arabs of Gaza, but in our own midst that we must seek his [the murdered person’s] blood. How did we shut our eyes and refuse to look squarely at our fate and see, in all its brutality, the fate of our generation? Can we forget that this group of youngsters sitting in Kibbutz Nahal-Oz carries the heavy gates of Gaza on their shoulders?”
A strong statement – but there is another side to that story, hidden by the noises of modern war. Near the Gaza port is the archaeological site of an ancient synagogue, built in the early sixth century.
The Egyptians who excavated it first, in 1965, found a mosaic floor depicting African animals and, in the entrance to the main hall, a mosaic of King David playing the harp, enchanting these animals.
The size and shape of the site indicates clearly the existence of a strong and wealthy community there. Several elements establish that this was a synagogue: the ark is facing Jerusalem, there are ornaments of olives and grapes, common in Jewish iconographies, and finally, there are inscriptions in Hebrew, including Hebrew names of donors: “We, Menahem and Yeshua, sons of the late Isai [Jesse], wood traders, as a sign of respect for a most holy place, donated this mosaic.” Not very different from the wording on plaques in my own synagogue.
We have evidence of the existence of a vibrant Jewish community in Gaza across many generations. It included important rabbis such as Israel Najara, for example, who wrote biblical commentary and sermons of law, though he is best known for his songs, among them Ya Ribbon Alam, still sung by Jews all over the world on Shabbat.
Now, after almost a century of a conflict, Gaza has become one of the bloodiest wounds on the body of humanity. The stubbornness and stupidity of both leaderships have brought us here. The current round of violence is no different to that of 2012 or 2008. In fact, it’s not very different from the 1955 Black Arrow operation, when Dayan was the Israeli Defence Force chief of staff.
Both sides are suffering from the belief that violence can settle conflicts and that a just cause justifies any means to achieve it. The occupation and siege of Gaza, besides the awful living conditions, do not justify rockets being shot at civilians, and, from the other side, the rockets do not justify the use of artillery and air bombing. Violence leads only to violence.
The most horrifying thing is that a concrete dispute on how to handle a mutual life and how to share land resources has turned now to a “holy war” in which both sides see themselves as executing the divine will. The result is more fatalism, dogmatism and lack of compassion.
Finally, as the South African context shows, reactions to the situation in Gaza are almost automatic. One can predict what will be said by all commentators – Jews, Muslims and South African government officials. The recent statement from the ANC on Gaza is regretfully and unsurprisingly very partisan and pro-Palestinian. This is a pity because South Africa, given its unique history, could and should play a bigger role in bringing relief and reconciliation to the Middle East.
What if – let us envision this together – former president Thabo Mbeki, for example, were sent as a commissioner to set up an office in Jerusalem and attempt to get both sides back to the table. Mbeki could contribute South Africa’s experience and knowledge of making peace.
I have no doubt that a strong South African commissioner would be respected by both sides and thus – hopefully – be more effective than such contributors have been so far.
Many people hold the opinion that only international intervention can force the two sides to be more reasonable. South Africa must take part in that.
Like all Jews around the world, I feel anxious and distressed in the face of this renewed Gaza war. Being an Israeli peace activist in exile, I can testify how much pro-peace grassroots activity is being done among Jews and Arabs, away from the eyes of the media and thus unknown to the international press.
It is my duty to my brothers and sisters to call for help in this dark hour, so that the sons and daughters of the Holy Land can eventually put down the weight of the Gaza gates.
Sa’ar Shaked is a rabbi at the Beit Emanuel Progressive Synagogue in Johannesburg